For Mac users who want the Internet to be as easy to use and as unintimidating as possible, America Online (AOL) has long been the dominant Internet service provider. But the recent arrival of Microsoft’s MSN for Mac OS X gives Mac users another choice: another subscription-based Internet service from a major player in the marketplace.
The OS X-only MSN client and AOL for OS X — released last year and updated in April 2003 — face entirely new demands from a changing subscriber base. These days, OS X 10.2 includes e-mail (Mail) and a free messaging client (iChat), and with just a little savvy, almost anyone can set up a connection to the Internet. So AOL and, now, MSN find themselves competing for new subscribers by offering junk-mail filters and parental controls to families who want Web-browsing, e-mailing, and messaging in one application. In truth, AOL and MSN offer very similar features. The difference is in the details, which contrast significantly enough to appeal to different types of users.
The E-mail Details
Whichever program you decide on, e-mail is the feature you’re likely to spend the most time using. As with most of their features, AOL and MSN offer similar tools for tweaking an outgoing e-mail message’s fonts, backgrounds, and colors, and for placing photos in a message’s body (though AOL’s implementation is more user-friendly by a hair, thanks to a dialog box that offers to resize photos so they fit within the body of the message).
Although the programs ultimately offer many of the same features, they present things in different ways. MSN’s approach will be familiar to anyone who has used Entourage X, the e-mail and personal information manager included with Microsoft’s Office v. X productivity suite. Like Entourage, MSN lets you assign color-coded categories to senders and individual messages. A preview pane below the in-box lets you see the content of messages without having to open them. MSN also copies Entourage’s Address AutoComplete feature, which fills in e-mail addresses as you type, drawing from its list of e-mail addresses to which you’ve previously sent e-mail (AOL for OS X also has this feature, but only for addresses stored in AOL’s Address Book).
In MSN, you can create folders for storing and sorting e-mail, and you can then drag and drop individual messages into the appropriate folder — these folders are offline, which means they’re stored on your Mac, not on MSN’s server. Unlike Entourage, however, MSN doesn’t allow you to create rules that automatically direct incoming messages to specific folders. Also, any message you drop into an offline folder remains in the online in-box; this quirk will initially frustrate users accustomed to Entourage.
You’ve Got Unwanted Mail
MSN’s most impressive e-mail feature is its sophisticated junk-mail filter. The feature allows you to set up lists of people from whom you’d like to receive e-mail, lists of senders you’d like to block, and customized filters that divert unwanted messages to a junk-mail folder. Worried that an e-mail from a friend might have been filtered by mistake? You can sort through the junk-mail folder and click on the Not Junk button when you see your friend’s message.
AOL doesn’t offer a junk-mail filter per se; the service gives you options for blocking or allowing e-mail from specified users, addresses, and domains. While that’s helpful in keeping specific annoyances out of your hair, it’s hardly an effective way of stopping spammers from flooding your in-box.
However, AOL for OS X has a new mailbox feature that in many ways is more effective than MSN’s more elaborate filters and folders. A drop-down menu in the mailbox lets you sort mail from people you know (that is, names and e-mail addresses stored in your address book), bulk senders, and unknown users. Choosing Show Me Mail From Unknown Users filters out the e-mail you’re sure you want, making it much easier to scroll through the remaining messages and find legitimate correspondence.
Both services allow you to set up multiple accounts within your main account — as many as six more screen names in AOL and as many as eight MSN subaccounts — so either program is ideal for families. It’s no surprise, then, that both AOL and MSN prominently feature parental controls that allow you to put a limit on just how much each user can browse the Web, send e-mail, or instant-message other users.
But the two services emphasize different aspects of parental control. Both AOL and MSN offer general age-appropriate Web-browsing filters, but only MSN lets parents specify which Web sites are OK to visit and which are forbidden. When children are blocked from sites they want to go to, they can send an e-mail notification to a parent’s account, asking that their mom or dad add the URL to the approved list. AOL limits control over Web browsing to its own preset age groups. If your child is blocked from visiting a site that you deem appropriate, you can’t adjust the filter yourself; you can only ask AOL to reevaluate its decision.
With other parental controls, AOL far exceeds what MSN offers. Parents can use AOL’s Online Timer to set the hours during which children are allowed online and a maximum amount of time per day. AOL’s newly added AOL Guardian doesn’t just send e-mail notifications when a child is blocked from visiting a site; it gives a complete report of online activities, from which sites the child successfully visited to how many e-mails were sent during a particular session.
Still, no system of parental controls is foolproof. While our tests found that AOL and MSN consistently blocked visits to adult Web sites, they were less successful when it came to preventing visits to e-commerce sites. In one test, in fact, we were able to place a hotel reservation through Expedia.com even though we were using an MSN screen name with parental controls recommended for a user between the ages of 13 and 17. That’s not necessarily a failure on Microsoft’s part — to place such a reservation, teenagers would have to get their hands on a valid credit card. Nevertheless, parents concerned about their kids’ online activity shouldn’t allow even the most-sophisticated filters and controls to give them a false sense of security.
Ambling into Aqua
The companies built both programs specifically for OS X, adapting the appearance of each to fit in with the operating system’s Aqua interface. The look is slightly more effective in MSN, from the drop shadows beneath toolbar icons to the round, glassy look of navigation buttons. AOL sports many of these touches, too, but the melding of Aqua’s elegant look with AOL’s cartoonish icons is simply too jarring. In addition, using AOL spawns so many windows that the interface gets confusing and cluttered; MSN restrains itself to one main window.
More important than appearance, however, is performance. Mac-based AOL members making the jump from the OS 9 client will be disappointed by the service’s sluggish sign-on times in OS X 10.2. When we ran AOL 5.0 in OS X’s Classic environment on a 450MHz Power Mac G4, it took us an average of 7.2 seconds to log in to AOL. When we ran AOL for OS X in OS X 10.2 on the same machine, it took an average of 23.4 seconds from the time we clicked on the Sign On button until the service was online and ready for use — and we tested using a high-speed T1 line. Disabling the Buddy List panel, which takes an eternity to load, shaved 4 seconds off the average login time.
Since it has no client for the classic Mac OS, MSN for OS X is spared the burden of matching past performance. The average OS X login took 12.9 seconds. That’s slower than AOL 5.0 running in Classic but still faster than AOL’s OS X version.
AOL has a substantial edge over MSN in an area that’s sure to resonate with Mac users who like to stay connected while traveling — portability. Say you take your PowerBook on a business trip. The AOL client features an Access Numbers button right on its sign-on screen; click on it and type in your location’s area code, and AOL supplies you with several different access numbers — all while you’re offline. MSN’s Connection Settings feature requires that you enter the phone number from your current location, rather than a simple area code. MSN then dials a toll-free number to find access numbers for your location; only then can you dial up and use the service. It’s a needless, time-consuming step that AOL long ago jettisoned, and MSN would be well advised to follow suit.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
With AOL and MSN matching each other in terms of features, the question of which service is superior boils down to where your particular interests lie. Parents who want better control over which Web sites their children visit would be well advised to consider MSN; parents who want an extensive record of their kids’ online activity may be better served by AOL. Users with a need for elaborately organized e-mail should turn to MSN; travelers who value convenient online access can’t go wrong with AOL (as long as they can find their way through AOL’s elaborate pricing options). AOL users who haven’t upgraded to the OS X version (a free upgrade for subscribers) should do so, even with the slower sign-on times — the enhancements to e-mail sorting will make it worth their while. For Mac-using AOL subscribers considering a move to MSN’s Mac client, the decision will depend on whether a particular MSN feature strikes their fancy. Even then, they should consider that features change fast — the arrival of MSN for OS X will likely spur more-heated competition between the two providers, and the differences between them may rapidly decrease.